10 Forensic Techniques Done Badly on TV

CSI shows often employ techniques, tools and technology that would never fly in the real world.
CSI shows often employ techniques, tools and technology that would never fly in the real world.
CBS/Sonja Flemming/Landov

Susan Clutter has a love-hate relationship with TV shows featuring forensic investigators, like "CSI" and its Miami and New York spinoffs, "Bones," "Dexter" and "NCIS." On the one hand, Clutter, who was a crime scene investigator for nearly a decade in Maryland and now teaches in the forensic sciences department at Youngstown State in Ohio, suspects that the wild popularity of the shows boosts enrollment in her classes, especially among women, who she thinks might not otherwise consider a career in law enforcement [source: Clutter]. And there is certainly no denying the appeal of forensic investigation shows as far as viewers are concerned. According to Nielsen ratings for early April 2011, included among the top 20 most popular shows were "NCIS" and "NCIS: Los Angeles" as well as "CSI," which still draws an average of 14 million viewers, even though it has been on the air since 2000 [source: USA Today].

But Clutter's gratitude for the increased visibility these programs provide only goes so far. In fact, although the shows purport to portray crime investigations as they are done in the real world, in reality, the stars employ sloppy -- even criminal -- investigation techniques and often use tools and technology that would never fly in the real world [source: Clutter]. So which forensic techniques and CSI practices on TV are the least realistic? Read on to find out.

The Actors Portray Real Scenarios

In an episode of "CSI" called "Hitting for the Cycle" (which refers to a grisly bet among Vegas cast members about whether they will see a homicide, a suicide, as well as natural and accidental deaths all in one night) shows one of the lead characters, Nick Stokes, bouncing between a crime scene at a pool and the forensic laboratory, all the while speculating on what happened to the murder victim [source: cbspressexpress.com].

In other episodes, the CSI crew carries guns, grills suspects and makes arrests. But none of that would ever happen. In fact, with very few exceptions, crime scene investigators aren't even sworn law enforcement officers; rather, most are civilians with specific scientific backgrounds, which helps them properly collect and evaluate DNA and other evidence [source: Love]. "Crime scene investigators are forensic specialists. What they are good at is identifying and collecting and evaluating evidence," says Jeffrey Love, who used to head up a CSI department in Orange County, Calif. "Forensic evidence technicians have morphed into super investigators [on the shows]."

Why are very few CSI personnel actual cops? Money. It's much cheaper to hire civilians than it is to add a police officer with full benefits [source: Love].

On the next page, we'll find out just how well TV's forensic pros handle the crime scenes they encounter.

They're Adept at Crime Scene Investigation
It's actually against the law for a CSI to touch a dead body because it's under the jurisdiction of the coroner.
It's actually against the law for a CSI to touch a dead body because it's under the jurisdiction of the coroner.
CBS/Monty Brinton/Landov

Here's what someone could assume to be the normal, professional procedure at a murder scene if their only evidence was what is shown on TV: Upon seeing a dead body, the first thing a CSI does is move it around to get a better look at it, examine it for gunshot wounds and look through the victim's pockets for identification. That is more or less what happened in "Appendicitement," an episode of "CSI" from season 10, in which, among other things, four of the CSIers happen upon a dead body at a shuttered barbecue joint [source: tv.com].

Wayne Farquhar, a nearly three-decade veteran at the San Jose Police Department and author of "Blood Over Badge," watched this episode and called the depiction of how a crime scene is handled "absurd and criminal" [source: Farquhar]. Farquhar says the proper thing to do would to be back away from the body and secure the building, making sure there aren't other suspects or victims around. And the CSIs would never touch the dead body. "For them to handle the body is against the law," he says, noting that a dead body is under the jurisdiction of the coroner's department. "Even if I see a wallet in the back pocket, I can't remove that wallet and examine it."

Click ahead to read why it's not "anything goes" at a crime scene.

A Crime Scene is a Free for All
This scene from "Law & Order: SVU" shows a murder victim being cradled, which would almost never happen in reality.
This scene from "Law & Order: SVU" shows a murder victim being cradled, which would almost never happen in reality.
NBC Universal, Inc.

On an episode of "CSI: Miami" called "About Face," the murder of a college student has the team of investigators worried about the return of a suspected serial murderer. Still, the scene at the victim's apartment looks more like a keg party, with lots of people roaming around and only a fluttering yellow police tape as a reminder that something bad happened [source: cbs.com]. The reality, however, is that access to crime scenes is very limited, be it to the general public, family members or other law enforcement personnel [source: Farquhar]. Why? It's all about maintaining the integrity of any evidence at the crime scene, and to do that you have to establish a perimeter to prevent anyone from gaining entry to the area. Everyone has to sign in with an officer and have a legitimate purpose for being there [source: Farquhar].

Keeping an area secure means potential suspects can't remove anything incriminating and the media can't take photos of what might become key pieces of evidence. Even chiefs of police can't just wander around a crime scene without good reason.

Keep reading to learn why the demands of an hour-long TV show skew the real pace of CSI work.

Everything Happens Fast

Nothing about the CSI shows is particularly methodical: The scenes are quick and interspersed with eye-catching shots of the Vegas Strip or South Beach in Miami. The pace at which the evidence from crime scenes -- be it DNA samples or fingerprints -- analyzed on the shows is equally rapid. Indeed, in the "About Face" episode of "CSI: Miami," one of the lab workers reports that a DNA sample submitted that morning had already been definitively identified [source: cbs.com]. In the real world, nothing happens so quickly. Joe Dane, an attorney who worked as a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County and still teaches courses at a police academy, including one about homicide investigation, says that DNA takes weeks to process. "If they have an ample quantity, like a large pool of blood, then it's weeks," he says, although it can take longer if there's just trace evidence.

The time investigators spend at a crime scene collecting and cataloguing evidence is also fast forwarded in the world of TV. "Having been a cop and a prosecutor called out to a murder scene to watch the investigation unfold, it takes hours and hours to process the scene and do it correctly. It's slow and methodical," he says.

Keep reading to see why forensic investigators on TV are really, really lucky.

There's Always Evidence

Among the more interesting pieces of evidence in "About Face" and "Appendicitement" were -- honestly -- a raccoon attached to a dead person's face and a second appendix. These items were above and beyond the normal trove of footprints and DNA evidence TV's CSI pros routinely glean from their investigations. "There is always some type of DNA or a clue at the crime scene," says Ken Novak, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri - Kansas City. "That is not typically the case."

In fact, Novak says it can be extremely difficult to lift fingerprints or DNA from a gun, something seen as relatively easy on TV. "The contours of firearms make it difficult to collect evidence [from them]," he says.

Keep reading to find out just how high-tech (or not) real CSI departments are.

Futuristic Technology is the Norm
The cast of "Bones," and most other CSI shows, have unlimited resources and access to futuristic technology.
The cast of "Bones," and most other CSI shows, have unlimited resources and access to futuristic technology.
Fox Broadcasting Co.

In watching "CSI," one might think that this realm of law enforcement has access to the most advanced technology available. In "About Face," for instance, one of the investigators plays with software that, according to the actor describing it, takes surveillance video and analyzes it for characteristics such as facial expressions to determine whether the person is shy, anxious or even deceptive [source: cbs.com]. In "Appendicitement," one of the lab workers pulls out a handheld device that instantaneously pulls up a suspected criminal's photo along with his entire rap sheet [source: tv.com]. The reality is far different, which is not to say that the technology used in police departments -- which, remember, would likely not be touched by anyone doing CSI -- isn't powerful. But it isn't graphics intensive and interconnected, meaning that databases with, say, fingerprint information would not be tied to one with photographs and mugshots [source: Novak].

"Computer systems that many police have that store a lot of information are 20 years old," says Novak. "I'm intimately familiar with police departments that have DOS-based or mainframe based [computers], not Windows. They're interested in data, not photos or fancy things."

Speaking of fancy things, keep reading to see why "CSI: Miami's" David Caruso is the only CSI investigator driving a Hummer.

Hummers, Bulletproof Vests and Skimpy Outfits Are Standard

A popular way to transition between scenes on "CSI: Miami" is to show David Caruso, who plays Horatio Caine, speeding down the highway or climbing in and out of his Hummer. On the Vegas version of CSI, Nick Stokes, played by George Eads, is fond of wearing a bulletproof vest, and just about all of the female actresses spend a lot of time in tight clothing. It all makes for interesting visuals, of course, though you'd never see any of those things with real crime scene investigators. As a Baltimore crime scene investigator, Susan Clutter says her department had three minivans with the seats removed and one SUV. When necessary, they would rent Ford Escorts from a company called Rent-A-Wreck.

Uniforms are equally unglamorous, and bulletproof vests are all but unnecessary, since CSIs aren't police officers and don't expect to be shot at. Most wear standard issue uniforms similar to what a soldier or police officer might wear with a shirt that has a CSI patch on it [source: Clutter]. Hardly glamorous.

It's Best to Work in the Dark
The "CSI" team surveys a crime scene in near darkness, a no-no in the real world.
The "CSI" team surveys a crime scene in near darkness, a no-no in the real world.
CBS/Sonja Flemming/Landov

The original "CSI" and its sister show in Miami -- not to mention "NCIS: Los Angeles" -- are set in locales with abundant sunshine. Yet watching certain episodes of these programs leads one to believe they were filmed by agoraphobics. Indoor scenes at the CSI labs in both "About Face" and "Appendicitement" look like they're set in nightclubs, with shelves of bottles filled with brightly colored liquids backlit by blue light. When the "CSI" team stumbles upon the dead body in the barbecue restaurant in "Appendicitement," they opt to use their flashlights, even though there is a huge neon sign blaring out front -- a pretty good indication that there is power [source: tv.com].

While mood lighting is evidently good TV, it's crummy for proper crime scene investigations. A crime scene examined at night would never be fully wrapped up until investigators had the opportunity to search it in the daylight [source: Farquhar]. Among the standard tools in a CSI van are light sources, like flashlights and flood lighting, and most CSI labs are located in government buildings, where the fluorescent lights wouldn't turn off if you wanted them to [source: Clutter].

Everyone Knows Everything

Of all the characters on all the forensic crime shows, perhaps the most unrealistic is Abby, the Goth, dog collar wearing scientist on "NCIS." It's not so much that Abby's anti-establishment vibe would fall flat in a straight-laced law-enforcement environment. It's also the fact that she appears to know just about everything about forensics, which is also the case with the cast members of the various "CSI" shows. In actuality, most of the scientists working in the lab specialize in one or two areas, like drug chemistry or DNA. They might have a chemistry background, but not one in biology or toxicology [source: Clutter].

Keep reading for our final forensic technique done badly: police paperwork.

Forensic Work is Flawless and Devoid of Bureaucracy

Let's face it: If the sort of crime scene investigation work that gets portrayed on TV actually existed in the real world, it would pretty much be the perfect job. All of your co-workers would be beautiful geniuses, you'd get to play with the tech gadgets that would have made Steve Jobs jealous, and you'd always, always catch the bad guy. But that, of course, is fiction. "Mistakes are made, but never on TV," says Love, who once ran the CSI department in Orange County, Calif. "Evidence is collected and if not done properly, spoilage can happen." That means sloppy work can lead to dangerous criminals escaping punishment. It happens, but rarely on TV.

What also doesn't happen on TV is the routine, everyday work that takes up so much of the time of anyone involved in law enforcement, including forensic specialists. "When was the last time you saw them writing reports? Police work is doing reports in triplicate," says Dr. Tod Burke, a former police officer who now teaches criminal justice and forensics at Radford University in Virginia. "A real-life crime show is someone filling out a crime form, and the sequel is someone filling out a supplemental form."


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